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International Holocaust Remembrance Day is more important – and more complicated – than ever this year, Northeastern
experts say

The need to understand the horrors of the Holocaust and the role of fascism and antisemitism in the genocide has added weight this year, Northeastern experts say. But does the Israel-Hamas war complicate that?

Silhouette of a man walking through the gate of a Nazi death camp in Germany.
FILE – A man walks through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp with the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free) at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Oranienburg, about 30 kilometers, (18 miles) north of Berlin, Germany, Jan. 27, 2019. The organization that handles claims on behalf of Jews who suffered under the Nazis says that Germany has agreed extend compensation for Holocaust survivors around the globe for the coming year. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

Since 2005, the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 has commemorated the victims of the Holocaust.

It’s always been a day of remembrance, of collective grief and of honoring the past by bringing it into the present. In a way, this year is no different. But between the Israel-Hamas war and a shocking increase in antisemitic, and anti-Muslim, incidents in the U.S., International Holocaust Remembrance Day is more challenging, complicated and important than ever before, says Lori Lefkovitz, director of the Jewish studies program and Ruderman professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University.

“We need to keep illuminating what we know and not allow things to go into the shadows because history and truth matter,” Lefkovitz says. “How authoritarianism happens, what fears are exploited to create authoritarian leadership, how those fears are based on lies, what kinds of distortions and what the mechanisms are for creating distortions: These are the things that need to be understood in their details so that we can see them in the present. Part of the work is commemorative, part of the work is preventative, and then the principal thing is to continue to struggle for understanding so that we can appropriately apply lessons to our own moment.”

It’s a particularly challenging moment to continue that work, Lefkovitz says. Efforts to preserve, memorialize and share the history of the Holocaust in order to educate people and prevent future genocides –– the whole concept of “Never again” –– have not been as effective as many would have hoped. “Genocides have persisted,” she says, and authoritarian movements have sprung up around the world, along with the kinds of antisemitic tropes and rhetoric that many had hoped were a thing of the past.

“It’s also an important day to remember that antisemitism is a force in the world,” says Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, executive director of Northeastern Hillel. “That fervent hatred of the Jews that has existed historically is something we still have to reckon with.”

Elizabeth Zhorov, vice president of Northeastern Hillel and a senior environmental science and sustainability student, says that because of how prejudice against Jews and other marginalized groups is manifesting today this day “has more meaning than ever.”

“It’s important to realize that there’s no room for this kind of hate for anyone ever again,” Zhorov says. “It’s important to educate ourselves and remember parts of history like that so we don’t repeat the past. It’s important now more than ever, especially with the rise in hate crimes all over the world, and how people are genuinely being affected by it now.”

It is more important than ever to spotlight this history, but there are challenges to shining that light. A 50-state survey of millennials and Gen Z in the U.S. showed a significant lack of awareness about the Holocaust and, in some cases, outright denial or minimizing of the genocide perpetrated against the Jews and other groups.

“Holocaust denial or minimizing the truth of the genocide of the Jews may be increasingly taking hold partly because of historical remoteness and fewer living witnesses, but the denial of the plain facts, so well documented by the Nazis themselves, is also partly made possible by the politics of our own day, the rise of white supremacy, the terrifying political extremism on the right that we see in America, and the role of an alternative media universe and alternative facts,” Lefkovitz says. “The absence of trusted, shared arbiters of truth and history have made the history of the Holocaust susceptible to terrifying revisionism. Promulgating the truth of what happened is all the more important in this present reality.”

This year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day also comes with the added weight of the Israel-Hamas war.

While the roiling storm of geopolitics is difficult to ignore, at its core International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a necessary moment for survivors, their descendents and the greater international community to grieve. Lefkovitz says, similar to how there is time set aside in Judaism to grieve for a loved one, having a day “dedicated to the memory of an atrocity is a placeholder for communal grief that allows you to live the rest of the time because if we lived in the horror and the mourning always, the trauma is with you always.”

Although there are no shortage of challenges to ensuring the horrors of the Holocaust are never repeated, Lefkovitz says International Holocaust Remembrance Day should be a reminder that beyond the trauma and loss survivors experienced, they also committed to “building something up that we are heirs to.” The day should be a look toward the future as much as it is a reflection on the past.

“We have a responsibility as people of privilege to not only honor that trauma and the losses but also continue to create an environment for other people who are at our borders or in their own countries trying to find simple freedom to build lives in safety and live free of war and terror,” Lefkovitz says.

On Jan. 26, in advance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Northeastern Hillel will be providing space all day at 70 Saint Stephen St. for students who wish to light a candle in honor of the victims of the Holocaust. Northeastern Hillel will also have written testimonials from survivors’ stories placed throughout the room that students can read and reflect on.

For students who lost family in the Holocaust, there will also be a memory wall where they can add their family member’s name to a list of individuals. Finally, Northeastern Hillel will incorporate a D’var about Holocaust remembrance into its Friday night services by Rabbi Jacob Weiss.